Well, it’s now my old band. I was only in it for one day. Actually, one ten minute performance, but what a thing that was. For some people, it’s exciting enough to say this was a secret return appearance of the KLF/Justified Ancients of Mu Mu on 23rd November in East London. But most need more explanation. Suffice to say, it was a ‘happening’, held in secret, for 99 selected people to walk the streets of Dalston with smokebombs and flyposts, engage with theatrical ‘interventions’ in places like McDonalds, then gather late evening for the re-emergence of the famed band Badger Kull – who had transmogrified into a shanty crew singing South Australia with its words rewritten around the theme of Burn The Shard. A night, it is fair to say, like no other.
Here’s something I wrote about the experience.
A few weeks ago I was watching a film called Detroit, about the 1967 explosion of anger which set that city alight. The film is so violent, so real, it feels like the Saving Private Ryan of civic protest. It strips riot of any cool, or humour.
On the bus home I found a piece of paper in my pocket. This held the lyric for a song called Burn The Shard, which I was learning for a gig a few days later. I’d put together a scratch shanty crew to provide entertainment for an evening event I knew little about. We were to sing only one song – a version of the classic halyard shanty South Australia, but with new words. Instead of ‘We’re Bound for South Australia’, we’d sing ‘We’re bound to burn the Sha-ard down’.
Don’t get me wrong. I despise that temple of mammon as much as anyone. Looking like Barad-Dur – Sauron’s duplex – the Shard is a sort of Dubai in the Sky, and if any edifice demands contempt, it does. But having witnessed the sober reality of civic inflammation, fuelled in Detroit by righteous resistance to oppression, I now felt uneasy to be party to what whiffed somewhat of art school onan. I didn’t want to play with fire.
But a paying gig’s a gig, and the man who’d brought me in is a lovely, genuine fellow. I was due to get a free jumper, and cap. Plus, onan or not, it looked like fun. So on I jumped.
We crew gathered in a hipster bar by a canal in Dalston, East London. This was base for the evening. 99 vetted volunteers were the night’s audience/congregation, the process of their inclusion carefully managed to maximise excitement. When we arrived, the volunteers were already out doing their stuff, leaving a couple of hours for us to rehearse. It was our first time singing together, though we knew shanties well. The only place to practise, away from music or punters, was a thin passageway leading to the bar’s store cupboards. There was just enough room to stand in a line, except when staff appeared to get stock or have a fag. Which they did every few minutes.
We sang through the shanty about eight times, working out a routine, settling into our parts and getting tighter. We went back down to the bar, with 90 minutes to spare before our due time of appearance. Suddenly the bar filled up, first with people, then the stench of spent smokebombs. These were the volunteers and they carried the smell in their hair and their clothes. They’d been out across local neighbourhoods all evening, flyposting, letting off smokebombs, I wasn’t sure exactly what. There was a Ronald McDonald among them. Now back at base, they looked excited and tired. Those in charge seemed desperate to appear disinterested in what was happening. We were told we would perform earlier than planned. Apparently a poorly-briefed security guard at the Arcola Theatre had not allowed 99 strangers to waltz through the property, so the evening was taken short.
No matter. We returned to our passageway and dressed up. Once in costume, I was delighted we looked like something out of a Wes Anderson film, particularly my favourite The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. I proposed we maintain that classic male gaze of Pointless Grandeur. Apparently we were a band called Badger Kull – the words were woven across our white fishermen’s rollnecks – but for only one night.
I had a panic trying to put on my wellington boots. I’d had an operation to rebuild my ankle five weeks beforehand and, while I was fine for standing and singing, I’d not realised my ankle could not bend itself into the shape required by a long boot. That hurt.
The brief was to sing the shanty and get the room to join in. No problem. As folk singers, that’s what we do. I was to say a few words. Again, something I’m perfectly used to. But I wasn’t sure how to calibrate the tone for this gathering. It was tempting to surrender to the Too Cool For School vibe. But fuckit, I thought, that’s stupid. Just do whatever you need to get the room singing. If you’re booked as a shanty group, that’s what you do.
We hid out of view, upstairs. We heard ourselves announced, then a mighty cheer. We processed halfway down the stairs at the end of the room, fully visible to all – an excellent stage, it must be declared – and sang our first two verses. These went down well. Then I spoke, announcing we were Badger Kull for just one night and inviting people to prepare themselves for shanty in the best way possible – to find the smell of the sea, and to sniff their neighbour, closely, to source that stench of herring, salt and sweat. This people did. Then, after a brief guide to what they must sing, we started the shanty proper. The volunteers sang along. Cameras appeared. When we finished, there was more cheering. We departed upstairs with rehearsed sneers. Five minutes later we were back at the bar, beaming, beer in hands.
Truth be told, the volunteers’ joy for the performance seemed disproportionate to our effort. Clearly Badger Kull meant more to them than us. The mood was happy, the organisers pulling careful strings behind their studied nonchalance. Here’s a description of the evening by one of the volunteers.
Was it all a wank? No – there was plenty of wit, effort and good humour. Did it insult real civic protest like Detroit? Not really, because it was so low-key. Was it art – I’ve no idea.
We came, put on some jumpers, sang a song, drank a beer and went home. Safely.
Photos courtesy of D. Hopkinson, K. Woods, L-13 Light Industrial Workshop and H. Jupiter.